This is going to be a very unique and challenging back to school for many teachers. The pandemic and the unique learning situations last year are making the beginning of the 2021 school year like no other.
You may have students entering your classroom that stayed home all last year, did virtual learning, came back to school with masks, social distancing, and safety precautions in place, or opted out of school all together. Whew!
Entering school is always a bit scary for young students, especially if it is their first school experience. But coming off of a year like 2020 may make it even scarier for them. In this blog post I am sharing some ideas that will help you make your students feel more secure about the coming school year.
Send your school’s or classroom’s safety precautions & procedures to parents.
Prior to the school year’s start, send a notice to parents that explains the safety precautions and procedures that will be in place. This can help ease any anxieties that they or their children may have.
Encourage parents to discuss them with their children before the school year starts. If students know what to expect and what procedures are in place to keep them safe it will help make the transition smoother.
Be prepared for slip-ups – have contingency plans in place
Even if you have the best safety precautions in place, there are bound to be times when there are slip-ups. This can be very upsetting to young children and can sometimes lead to extreme worry and even melt-downs. Have contingency plans in place so that you can quickly solve the issue and move on without worry or fear.
For example, if masks are still required always have extras on hand. Students are bound to ruin their mask or get it dirty at some point which may upset them. Having another one to quickly give them will prevent any anxiety.
Sometimes a child may forget to wash their hands and this can cause them or their classmates to “freak out” that he/she is going to get sick. Have sanitary hand wipes on hand to give them to quickly diffuse the situation.
Anticipate anxiety and help students cope
It’s very important to validate students’ feelings and express understanding and empathy. However, it’s also very important not to give them blanket, untrue assurances. Be honest and positive. Acknowledge the risks but then emphasize all of the precautions being taken to reduce those risks and keep them safe.
Be a good role model for your students by taking care of yourself and staying calm during the day. If they see you being calm they are more likely to stay calm too.
Teach them coping strategies. It is very hard for young children to express big emotions; therefore, it is important to teach them how to self-regulate and deal with them.
Explain that it is OK to be upset or scared but it is not OK to cause harm to another person or to kick and scream when feeling this way. Teach them to keep their hands to themselves and take a deep breath. Deep breathing can calm the nervous system. There are few a YouTube videos that can help:
Sesame Street has a video on breathing to handle emotions.
In this video called Just Breathe by Julie Bayer Salzman you can watch and hear from elementary school students learning to use mindfulness to navigate complex feelings.
Extend your circle time or morning meeting to explore feelings. Talking about emotions can help children process their feelings and recognize them in themselves and others. This discussion time also helps them learn to take turns, listen to others, focus, and build connections.
Play calming music in the classroom when students first come in or anytime during the day when it won’t interfere with learning. You can also have a calming scent such as lavender in the room.
Build connections again
After a year of social distancing and/or not being in a class or group, students will need guidance on building connections, getting along, and working as and in a group.
One of my favorite strategies for this is the bucket filler strategy. It is a concept that is simple for young students to understand and encourages good behavior and kindness to others. The basic gist of the bucket filler theme is that we all carry around invisible buckets that represent our level of happiness. The objective is to keep everyone’s bucket full by being bucket fillers. Bucket fillers fill each others’ buckets by being kind, following the class rules, sharing, and caring for each other.
It is based on Tom Rath’s How Full is Your Bucket? For Kids book and Have You Filled a Bucket Today? A Guide to Daily Happiness for Kids by Carol McCloud. You can find ideas for implementing the bucket filler strategy in your classroom here.
You can also build connections with each other by making a piece of art together as a class. Handprint art is simple and easy for young students. A favorite of mine is to create a rainbow using the students’ handprints and then hanging it on a bulletin board entitled “Be a Rainbow in Someone Else’s Cloud”.
Another great way to help young students to feel connected with one another is to sing together as a group. There are a number of fun singalongs on YouTube such as this one by The Singing Walrus or you can sing familiar songs together such as nursery rhymes.
Students can also recite this bucket filler pledge together as a class each day.
Start building a connection with your students before the school year begins. The unknown is scary for all of us. This year more than ever both students and parents may be very apprehensive about what the school year will be like. by
Send a welcome video that shows the classroom environment. This goes a long way in reducing students’ anxiety because then they know what to expect and will feel more comfortable.
If you are unable to send a video, send them a Meet the Teacher letter or welcome letter introducing yourself and telling them about yourself. Young students love getting something special addressed just to them whether it is through regular mail or email. Telling them about yourself helps students begin to make connections with you. Including a photo of yourself helps give them a visual connection to you as well.
Visit this this blog post for some additional ideas, free downloads, & resources for how to build relationships and connections with your students at the start of the school year.
Create & go over rules & safety guidelines together
Students will generally follow rules and safety guidelines if they understand the reason behind them and if they had a hand in creating them.
Creating the rules together as a class shows your students that you care about their feelings and also value their opinions.
Come up with a set of rules together as a group and explain the WHY for each of them.
Welcome them back with a small treat or surprise gift
This is something that I have done for years and my students have always loved it and it has helped them feel more at ease and less anxious about school and leaving their parents. It doesn’t have to be anything extravagant, just something simple and special from you to show them that you are happy to have them in your class. You can see some examples of back to school gifts here.
I hope these ideas have been helpful. I know this may be another challenging year getting students used to being back in the classroom, but together we can help each other through it! Feel free to add any additional ideas or suggestions in the comments. Wishing all of you a wonderful school year!